Changing of the guard: Where Taiwan goes after President Ma

(From the National Interest)

By Jonathan Sullivan

Six weeks out from Election Day in Taiwan, the DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen has an unassailable lead in the polls, and the only uncertainty is whether her party, the DPP, will win a legislative majority, and if so, by how large a margin. The ruling KMT is reeling; damaged by an unpopular outgoing president, rifts in the party, an indecisive last minute candidate and a series of policy flops and scandals. Whatever the intention behind last month’s hastily arranged meeting in Singapore between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou, it has failed to invigorate the KMT or change its fortunes in the polls. For readers with a passing interest in Taiwan, this may come as a surprise. After all, Ma has overseen a period of unprecedented calm and productive relations with Taiwan’s biggest existential threat, China.

KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou and DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen shake hands during debate

KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou and DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen shake hands during debate

Upon entering office in 2008, Ma had four overarching aims. First, to stabilize cross-strait relations that effectively came to a halt at the (semi-)official level during his predecessor Chen Shui-bian’s tenure. Second, to revive Taiwan’s economic fortunes through closer integration with the Chinese economy. Third, to balance the imperative of economic incentives with the maintenance of “national dignity.” Fourth, to roll back the “de-Sinicization” elements of Chen Shui-bian’s “Taiwanization” program by emphasizing Taiwan’s Chinese cultural heritage and situating Taiwan within the framework of the greater Chinese nation.

The underlying device used to pursue these aims was the “1992 Consensus”, a rhetorical position regarding Taiwan’s status vis-à-vis China characterized by “one China, separate interpretations”. The “1992 Consensus” is controversial in Taiwan, but its ambiguities have created space for the two sides to develop a workable platform and a new level of momentum. During Ma’s tenure, this platform has yielded a number of practical agreements across several socio-economic sectors, including a limited free trade agreement, the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).

When he stands down at the end of his second term in 2016, Ma Ying-jeou will leave cross-Strait relations in significantly better shape than when he began his presidency in 2008. In that sense, his China policy can be considered a success. However, Taiwan’s engagement with China is complicated and Ma’s China policy cannot be measured by the tone of cross-strait relations alone, or by the tenor of particular leaders’ personal interactions. Taiwan’s China policy has implications for its economy, society, foreign relations and many other policy sectors, and it remains one of the most contested arenas for domestic political competition, often, but not exclusively, refracted through the prism of national identity. Read more

 



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